Oakland Institute

Reframing the Debate Inspiring Action

Sustainable Food Systems

Despite persistent inadequacies, large-scale industrial agriculture remains the most touted solution to global hunger in development discourse. However, an increasing number of reports and research from intergovernmental agencies including the UNEP and FAO, among others, endorse agro-ecological approaches that prioritize smallholder crop production to successfully meet the challenges of climate change and hunger. 

The Facts: 


The current development landscape is dominated by Green Revolution ideals—genetically modified seeds used in capital-intensive large-scale agriculture schemes with a prominent role for pesticides and fertilizers. These efforts claim to feed the developing world. Instead, the schemes are realized as large tracts of monoculture that prioritize export market crops, require increased mechanization, and are dependent on multinationals for chemicals and seeds.  According to a May 2011 policy brief from the UN’s Least Developed Country series, the four biggest agricultural supply companies control “60% of global agro-chemical, 30% of seed, and almost 40% of biotechnology supply.”

In 2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental multi-stakeholder process sponsored by the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank, and WHO, released a comprehensive and rigorous report based on the evidence and assessments of thousands of experts worldwide, stating: “It is clear that ecological agriculture is productive and has the potential to meet food security needs, particularly in developing countries.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food reports that agro-ecological systems can double small farmers’ agricultural output in 10 years. Rice Intensification Schemes (small-scale village-based irrigation systems) implemented along the Niger River in Mali produce an average of 9 tons per hectare, more than twice the yield of conventionally farmed areas.

In 2013, a UN report held smallholder farmers as the key to lifting over one billion people out of poverty.

  1. Supporting smallholder farmers to play a greater role in food production and natural resource stewardship is one of the quickest ways to lift over one billion people out of poverty and sustainably nourish a growing world population.
  2. Most of the 1.4 billion people living on under US$1.25 a day live in rural areas and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods, while an estimated 2.5 billion people are involved in full- or part-time smallholder agriculture.
  3. These smallholders manage approximately 500 million small farms and provide over 80 per cent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world, particularly Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, thus contributing to food security and poverty reduction.
  4. A one-per-cent increase in agricultural per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reduced the poverty gap five times more than a one-per-cent increase in GDP in other sectors, especially amongst the poorest people.
  5. Another study demonstrated that for every ten-per-cent increase in farm yields, there was a seven-per-cent reduction in poverty in Africa, and a reduction of over five-per-cent in Asia.
What we are doing about it: 


By adhering to a high investigative standard with consideration of local impact and international trends, OI advocates for agro-ecological farming methods that empower local producers and reports the effects of current agribusiness models. OI provides honest policy proposals that lead to concrete solutions, guided by the belief that small agriculture can feed the world. 


High food prices in 2007-2008 threatened the livelihoods and food security of billions of people worldwide for whom getting enough food to eat was already a daily struggle. All over the world, individuals, civil society groups, governments and international organizations took action to cope with the crisis triggered by skyrocketing food prices.
This report issues a direct challenge to Western-led plans for a genetically engineered revolution in African agriculture, particularly the recent misguided philanthropic efforts of the Gates Foundation's Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and presents African resistance and solutions rooted in first-hand knowledge of what Africans need.
November 28, 2011
Climate change threatens the livelihoods and food security of billions of the planet’s poor and vulnerable, as it poses a serious threat to agricultural production. At the same time as they pose a huge climate threat, industrial agricultural systems are highly vulnerable to climate change.
March 2, 2009
This report issues a direct challenge to Western-led plans for a genetically engineered revolution in African agriculture, particularly the recent misguided philanthropic efforts of the Gates Foundation's Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and presents African resistance and solutions rooted in first-hand knowledge of what Africans need.
February 3, 2009
A key question that is often asked about ecological agriculture, including organic agriculture, is whether it can be productive enough to meet the world’s food needs. While many agree that ecological agriculture is desirable from an environmental and social point of view, there remain fears that ecological and organic agriculture produce low yields.
October 1, 2008
The challenges facing agriculture today are immense. Of immediate concern is the global increase in food prices, starkly brought home by reports of food riots and food shortages in many countries around the world. During the first three months of 2008, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels in nearly 50 years while prices in real terms were the highest in nearly 30 years (FAO, 2008).
April 1, 2008
An independent and multi-stakeholder international assessment of agriculture has concluded that a radical change is needed in agriculture policy and practice, in order to address hunger and poverty, social inequities and environmental sustainability questions.
March 1, 2007
The first genetically engineered (GE) crops were approved for human consumption in the mid-1990’s. Now, millions of genetically modified meals later, the clamor over GE foods has become a fixture of food policy debate.
Quick Facts: 

16-30% of greenhouse gases result from the agricultural sector, depending on the inclusion of processing, packing, and transportation in calculations. Industrialized agriculture, which relies on intensive resource use, is largely responsible for the high numbers.

A review of agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries by the FAO found that more efficient use of water, reduced use of pesticides, and improvements in soil health led to average crop yield increases of 79 percent.

Research by the UN and numerous other bodies demonstrates that sustainable agriculture improves food supply, nutrition, and livelihoods in LDCs.

A UNEP-UNCTAD analysis of 114 cases in Africa revealed that a shift toward organic agriculture production increased yields by 116%.

$192 million: the estimated annual value to be gained from ecosystem services if half of the arable area under conventional farming is shifted to organic.

Agroecology Case Studies

Thirty-three case studies that shed light on the tremendous success of agroecological agriculture across the African continent.

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